Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine brought widespread popular and scholarly attention to south Asian literature written in the United States, and placed South Asian American experiences on the map of American literature. Since its publication in 1989, the novel has been popular among female readers interested in ethnicity and immigration; it was highly acclaimed as a new minority voice by mainstream reviewers, scholars, and critics; and it is taught in Asian-American studies courses.
Jasmine is a first-person narrative about a young Punjabi peasant woman, Jyoti Vijh, who moves from Hasnapur village in Punjab to the United States as an illegal immigrant, to fulfill the dream of her husband, Prakash, who is killed in a Sikh terrorist attack. To avenge being raped on her first night in America, Jyoti transforms herself into the goddess Kali and murders her rapist Half-Face, a smuggler and Vietnam veteran. The novel follows the protagonist's self-transformations and reincarnations as Jasmine, Kali, Jazzy, Jase, and Jane, as she moves between various geographic locations and the men in her life--her progressive engineer husband, Prakash, in Jullunder; the rapist Half-Face in Florida; her husband's mentor Professor Vadhera, who sells Indian women's hair in Flushing, New York; her suave, liberal lover, the Columbia physics professor Taylor in Manhattan; the wheelchair-bound banker Bud, the father of her unborn child, in Iowa; and her fantasy-lover, her Vietnamese adopted son, Du, and finally her ex-lover Taylor, who is moving to Berkeley, California. The novel ends as a subversive rewriting of Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. The protagonist Jasmine (now renamed Jane) suddenly abandons the disabled Bud--whom she even refers to as "Rochester"--to follow the dream of the illimitable American frontier and escape with her first American lover, Taylor, to California.
The novel grew out of the short story "Jasmine" in the collection Middleman and Other Stories (1988), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. The author has described her own journey toward acquiring an American identity in terms that echo the sentiments of the novel's protagonist. Like the author, who identifies herself as an American (Shankar, 1998), the novel's eponymous protagonist "claims America" in the tradition of earlier Asian-American writers such as Carlos Bulosan in America Is in the Heart and, more recently, Gish Jen in Typical American.
Major themes include immigration and assimilation; hyphenated American identities and the joys and sorrows of becoming American; the American Dream; the promise of the frontier and the open geography of the American landscape; multiple migrations and the diasporic worlds of refugees and illegal migrant workers; reincarnation and self-naming and renaming; violence and nurturance; the conflict between Old World duties and New World wants and desires; the impact of Sikh terrorism in India in the 1980s; and ethnic ghettoization of Indian immigrants who live in the ossified, recreated Indias in Queens, New York. Mukherjee's novel lends itself to positive feminist readings as she attributes to the female protagonist the power of the Hindu goddess of destruction, Kali, and male gods from the Hindu Trinity such as Shiva the Destroyer with the "third eye" and Vishnu, the Preserver, with the universe in his belly.
Although some critics have spoken out against Mukherjee for her failure to be critical of the United States, Mukherjee does use an ironic narrative voice that comments on the subtle racism, ethnocentrism, and exoticizing to which her protagonist is subjected, whether by the liberal intellectuals at Columbia University; the farmers and bankers in Baden, Iowa; or a Vietnam veteran who proudly claims "I been to Asia and it's the armpit of the universe" (100). She also depicts her view of America's nuclear plants and "Eden's waste" (95-96). As in her earlier short stories, Mukherjee also gives fleeting insight into other underprivileged ethnic minorities, including the Vietnamese "boat people" like Jasmine and Bud's adopted son, Du, the Chicano and South American illegal migrant farm workers and laborers in Florida, whom the Quaker activist Lillian Gordon protects, and the "day mummys," or Caribbean nannies and housekeepers, on whose labors the research of Columbia professors is built. Mukherjee comments not only on how the post-1965 immigrants (most of whom are not European) are transformed in the United States, but also on how the post-Vietnam "puritan country" of Iowa (204), the heartland of America, is changing.
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Shankar, Lavina Dhingra. "The Limits of (South Asian) Names and Labels: Postcolonial or Asian American?" In A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America, edited by Lavina D. Shankar and Rajini Srikanth, 49-66. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998.Tapping, Craig. "South Asia Writes North America: Prose Fictions and Autobiographies from the Indian Diaspora." In Reading the Literatures of Asian America, edited by Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling, 285-301. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
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